Kapor Center establishes Oakland as the epicenter of tech for social justice

Kapor Center

There’s something happening on Craigslist that some people might find disturbing: landlords are listing spots in North and West Oakland as being located in “the new tech area.” But while tech has been announcing its arrival in the East Bay for a while now, the most prominent voices are those adamantly insisting that, in Oakland, we’re using the word differently.

The Kapor Center, which invests in both for-profit and nonprofit tech ventures, celebrated the groundbreaking of their new headquarters on Tuesday, promising to constitute the (aptly metaphorical) heart of Oakland’s tech-for-social-justice world. As one of the Kapor partners, Benjamin Jealous, put it, “We’re here to make sure that as Oakland becomes more tech, tech becomes more Oakland.”

The Center will occupy a building on 22nd and Broadway that has been vacant for a decade. After a serious remodeling, it will become a three-story complex that is decidedly public-facing for a philanthropic and venture capital firm. There will be an event auditorium in the basement, a rooftop garden and a street-level cafe. “We’re here to make an investment in Oakland,” said Freada Kapor Klein, “We’re here to strengthen the tech ecosystem and open our doors to anyone that wants to be a part of that.”

The public-access features of the building will commingle with Kapor Capital, a seed stage investor; the Kapor Center for Social Impact, a nonprofit with the express mission of leveraging tech to attack social and economic injustice; and, lastly, the Level Playing Field Institute, which is a pipeline program that facilitates the movement of resource-strapped youth into careers in tech.

“You know that on the other side of that bridge, there are startups trying to solve the problems of the rich,” Jealous said. “We aim to make sure that Oakland becomes the place that is the center of solving the problems for the rest of us.”

The Kapor Center does this by partnering with mission aligned nonprofits like The Marcus Foster Education Fund, the College Access Foundation of California, and, full disclosure: Oakland Local. On the investment side, some Kapor-funded startups are expressly philanthropic or democratizing, others are simply good business ideas that might not be as lucrative as big-buck ventures. 

Mayor Jean Quan has arguably had more success attracting this kind of social enterprise to Oakland than she has in reforming the civic institutions they supplement. “Fifty years ago, on the march in Washington, [Martin Luther King, Jr.] talked about islands of poverty in oceans of prosperity,” Mayor Quan said. “I think what the Kapors are doing here is making sure that we have a full onslaught on the remaining islands of poverty, and that the dream really becomes the dream for every child, that’s reachable and touchable.”

The gold rush dream of tech prosperity is certainly coming closer into reach from across the Bay. But it sounds like the Kapor Center is less concerned with the dream and more concerned with making life livable even for the non-prosperous. That way we don’t have to dream. If tech can direct itself towards those aims, then maybe we won’t feel disturbed when see our home advertised as “the new tech area” on Craigslist.